DAYTONA BEACH — Jeff Gordon has won 81 points races and four Sprint Cup titles since 1993. A victory in a 150-mile qualifier that sets the field for the Daytona 500 should be meaningless. Not so, not a season after failing to win a race since his rookie year in 1993.
All he'll officially get out of his first win of any NASCAR variety since Oct. 13, 2007, is the third starting spot in Sunday's season opener. But Gordon took it as a harbinger of a return to prominence.
"Doesn't matter if it's a qualifying race," he said. "(In) the Daytona 500, any confidence-builder and momentum that we can get is a positive."
Kyle Busch, who won eight Cup races last season but foundered in the Chase for the Championship, passed Mark Martin with four laps left to win the second duel and will start fourth. Martin Truex Jr. earned the pole on speed Sunday, with Mark Martin second.
A.J. Allmendinger, Jeremy Mayfield, Scott Riggs and Regan Smith secured spots in NASCAR's most prestigious race through odd circumstance. Mayfield, a journeyman driver who twice qualified for the Chase for the Championship with Evernham Motorsports, came to Daytona with his own one-car team of 20 employees, while Riggs races for former Evernham crew chief Tommy Baldwin, who announced the formation of his spendthrift organization just a month ago. Smith's Furniture Row team is scheduled to run just 12 races.
Allmendinger, meanwhile, raced the No. 44 Dodge into the 500 after Richard Petty Motorsports thought all winter it was an automatic qualifier on owner points. That was not the case after a series of point swaps and mini-mergers.
"You can whine about it, moan about it, but that's the system," Allmendinger said. "You have only one option and that's to focus and get the job done, and that's what we did."
Gordon passed Tony Stewart with two laps left.
"That's the way to start a year," he said, hoisting his daughter, Ella. "Who says we can't win?"
Riggs raced his way into the Daytona 500 in the Gordon-won qualifier by finishing eighth while Smith secured a spot before ever sliding into his No. 78 Chevrolet. Stewart was in the 500 on speed, but his second-place finish allowed Smith, next-quickest in qualifying among those without owners points, to assure entry.
"I feel like we just won the race," said Riggs, who had been 32nd best in time trials.
The first race was a marked success for 18-year-old rookie Joey Logano, who had an adventurous first Speedweeks with practice bumps and wrecking out and finishing last in the nonpoints Bud Shootout. He finished fourth.
"We accomplished everything we needed to do," Logano said. "Our main goal was to finish the race, which was more than we got in the Shootout. We went out there and earned some respect from these guys."
Brant James can be reached at (727) 893-8804 or email@example.com.
The 51st Daytona 500
3:30 p.m. Sunday, Daytona International Speedway
TV: Ch. 13
Tickets: Fewer than 1,000, all pricey, remained Thursday.
From Martin Truex Jr. on the pole to No. 43 Terry Labonte, the full Daytona field. 3C
Boost for Logano
Joey Logano, 18, earns some Speedweeks respect with his qualifying run. 3C